In 1947, the great English poet W. H. Auden wrote a letter to his friend Ursula Niebuhr in which he confessed: “I don’t think I’m over-anxious about the future, though I do quail a bit before the possibility that it will be lonely. When I see you surrounded by family and its problems, I alternate between self-congratulation and bitter envy.”
The root of Auden’s fear of loneliness and his envy of the comforts of family is not hard to uncover: Auden was a homosexual Christian. And this dual identity created a tension for him: As a Christian of a relatively traditional sort, he believed homosexuality missed the mark of God’s good design for human flourishing. But as a homosexually oriented person, despite his Christian beliefs, he craved intimacy and companionship with other men. Caught on the horns of a dilemma like that, what was he to do with his loneliness? …
I am drawn to these haunting confessions of Auden’s because I, too, am a homosexual Christian. Since puberty, I’ve been conscious of an exclusive attraction to persons of my own sex. Though I have never been in a gay relationship as Auden was, I have also never experienced the “healing” or transformation of my sexual orientation that some formerly gay Christians profess to have received. But I remain a Christian, a follower of Jesus. And, like Auden, I accept the Christian teaching that homosexuality is a tragic sign that things are “not the way they’re supposed to be.” Reading New Testament texts like Romans 1:26-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 through the lens of time-honored Christian reflection on the meaning and purpose of marriage between a man and a woman, I find myself—much as I might wish things to be otherwise—compelled to abstain from homosexual practice.
As a result, I feel, more often than not, desperately lonely.
I thought of this piece by Dr Hill yesterday as two separate but related stories concerning evangelicals and LGBT individuals played out online.
Second, Julie Rodgers, a celibate same-sex attracted Christian wrote the following on her blog:
Though I’ve been slow to admit it to myself, I’ve quietly supported same-sex relationships for a while now. When friends have chosen to lay their lives down for their partners, I’ve celebrated their commitment to one another and supported them as they’ve lost so many Christian friends they loved. When young people have angsted at me about the gay debate, I’ve just told them to follow Jesus—to seek to honor Him with their sexuality and love others well. For some, I imagine they will feel led to commit to lifelong celibacy. For others, I think it will mean laying their lives down for spouses and staying true to that promise to the end. My main hope for all of them is that they would grow to love Jesus more and that it would overflow into a life spent on others.
I want to suggest that evangelicals should learn something from the fact that these two things happened on the same day.
First, a prominent evangelical research fellow with the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission gets attacked in a public forum not for condoning same-sex acts, but for simply attempting to be careful in her handling of complex issues, for being friends with LGBT individuals, and trying to facilitate friendly conversation between orthodox Christians and LGBT individuals.
Second, an SSA Christian who has in the past taken the orthodox view on sex ethics seems to have pivoted toward the more progressive view on the morality of same-sex acts.
Returning to the first event, the striking thing about the exchange is that Dr Prior is being shouted down for simply following the lead of many other orthodox believers. She is attempting to maintain friendships with LGBT individuals and be a loving, generous Christian toward people in the church struggling with same-sex attraction while not compromising on classical Christian teachings regarding sexuality. To take only one example of a well-known Christian attempting a similar work, consider the great American evangelist Francis Schaeffer whose writing on homosexuality (available in his collected letters) anticipated many of today’s debates.
Schaeffer, writing in 1968 (!) made the now-common distinction between what he called “homophiles” and homosexuals, arguing that it is possible to be same-sex attracted without falling into sin and that it is the acting on that attraction which is sinful. (Again, he wrote this in 1968.)
In one of his letters he refers to “the mistake that the orthodox people have made” and defines that as saying that “homophile tendencies are sin in themselves, even if there is no homosexual practice. Therefore the homophile tends to be pushed out of human life (and especially orthodox church life) even if he does not practice homosexuality. This, I believe, is both cruel and wrong.”
The teachings of scripture on the morality of homosexual acts are not ambiguous and so we cannot compromise on what scripture clearly teaches. Yet we also must recognize that this is a hard teaching for people who struggle with same-sex attraction and that, if the church fails in its relationship to the person, ends up amounting to a sentence of life-long loneliness and isolation.
As Dr Hill has noted elsewhere, the choice given to gay people has seldom been “be involved in a robust Christian community with many faithful, committed friends” or “enter a same-sex relationship.” Rather, the choice they have been given (often by Christians) is “be ostracized from the church and live a life that is basically lonely” or “enter a same-sex relationship.”
Particularly in an atomized, hyper-mobile, hyper-individualist culture like our own it is very difficult to find true, long-term friendships outside of a romantic, sexual relationship. And as I’ve noted before, evangelicals have played a major role in creating the systems that have annihilated home life and redefined marriage. If evangelicals are going to insist on orthodoxy with regards to sex ethics (and we must) then we must also insist on the practices of hospitality and friendship that have far too often been neglected in our churches. Those practices will inform more than just our relationships with celibate gay Christians in our churches, of course, but they will inform those relationships in a massive and noticeable way.
If I’m understanding Dr Hill rightly, the problem for LGBT individuals is not always what the demands of Scripture force them to give up (hard as those demands are), but rather what the failures of the church would force them to give up if they were to remain Christian. If the church is to maintain its commitment to orthodoxy then the church must also be willing to defy the cultural trends toward individualism, busyness, and mobility and be willing to slow down enough to offer the gifts of unhurried time, friendship, and hospitality to gay Christians in our community. We must be a place where the word celibacy is not a dressed up way of describing loneliness.
Will the church be the church for SSA Christians? If we are regularly producing people like Schaeffer and Prior who can maintain a commitment to orthodoxy while also being warm, hospitable, and clear in their call to the church to be a home and refuge for gay Christians, then the answer is “yes.”
On the other hand, if a prominent evangelical is going to be publicly attacked for appearing at an event specifically meant to promote fruitful conversation between LGBT individuals and Christians then we can’t be surprised when people like Rodgers end up closer to Justin Lee or Rachel Held Evans. Of course that’s where they ended up. We sent them there.
UPDATE: This post has been updated to change references to Dr Karen Swallor Prior from “Dr Swallow Prior” to “Dr Prior.”
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).